Many people spend a lot of their time making straw-women arguments about what it means to be feminist. Feminists, they assume, are all unshaven, definitely don’t wear make-up or do their hair, and perhaps are a bit overweight. Feminists, they think, are all militant and anti-men. Feminists do not have a sense of humour, and are party poopers.

It seems unsurprising then, that many women shy away from the label, believing that if they name themselves feminist, they’ll lose the concession granted to ordinary women to define who they are without rigid categories. Ordinary women, they assume, are able to be concerned about their appearance while still wanting their husbands/wives to do some of the housework. Ordinary women, they assume, can be pro-men, and can be anti-violence against women without really having to do anything about it.

I doubt however, that it is ever as simple as either of these examples let on. Feminism is bigger than how you look, and being an “ordinary” (and let’s just state here that ordinary is indeed class, race, and sexuality bound) woman means benefiting from the gains of feminism.

August is generally focussed around activities that celebrate women. In fact, the ministry of women (oh, and children and people with disabilities — in fact, everyone except able-bodied men) spent all their money last year on a nice party to say so. But, the month provides for little discussion of what it actually means to be feminist, and/or what in the hell happened to the women’s movement in South Africa. It doesn’t encourage women to get engaged in civil society, or activism around their rights. That’s because, few gains have actually been made for women in the last 10 years, and all three branches of government have done little to push women’s rights.

My thinking is that somewhere between the stereotypes of feminism, and the burn-out of anti-apartheid feminist activists, we’ve lost our mojo and our identity.

Feminists are not really sure what we’re fighting for anymore, and so, we don’t fight. We watch the news and maybe we make a comment every now and then, but we certainly do not organise around legislative gains that could make it easier for us to access safe abortion. We certainly do not organise, or actively support the few civil-society organisations that do organise, around our right to be free from violence. We certainly do not organise around the education of girls in South Africa, or the fact that women in high-level positions are consistently paid less than men. We don’t organise around the rights of sex workers, and we certainly don’t organise around the rights of HIV-positive women’s reproductive rights. We do not organise around the rights of lesbian, bisexual and trans-women, or around the need to make sure the internet does not become a place where women are verbally/physically/sexually harassed while others watch on.

Why not? Why don’t you organise? Why don’t you go to that feminist get together when it is organised? What do you say when people say that feminism is out of fashion? What concessions do you allow the label “feminism” to make sure that it can work for you?

What does it mean to be a feminist these days? Is it just a middle-class luxury term? Or is it a reality?


  • Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing project called 'My First Time'. It focuses on women's stories of significant first time experiences. Buy the book on the site or via Modjaji Books. Jen's first novel, The Peculiars, came out in February 2016 and is published by Penguin. Get it in good book stores, and on


Jen Thorpe

Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing...

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